I didn't find a wealth of information about how to put the monthly bills into long-term hibernation so assembled a strategy somewhat piecemeal. Writing down some findings in case I need them later or they're of use to others.
Paperless billing. This makes remote management much, much easier. And reduces the number of paper bills on return too.
Vacation modes for cell phones. Having accounts with both AT&T and Verizon, it turns out that you can call them up and ask them to put your account on vacation suspend. There's a nominal charge, I think AT&T is $10/mo while Verizon is $15 flat, and that's all you pay. Your contract end date is pushed out accordingly but you can keep the account on suspend for 180 days (or 90+90 in the case of Verizon). It did, however, make me realize quite how much we spend on 'bandwidth' every month.
Canceling cable. Having a no-contract arrangement with Comcast made this part really easy. I might even get special introductory six-month pricing on return.
Credit card travel info. This was a mixed bag. Some cards were set up well and you just give them a start and end date and that's it. Others tell you to call back each month to 'remind' them. Sigh. Still, I'm certain that's better than a stop in cash flow.
Car insurance. It seems you can get reduced rates for vehicles if you're not actively driving them.
When you find yourself in a city that has full five-bar cell phone service on the subway, it's really hard to do without a cell phone. The process wasn't entirely painless but in all fairness I can't exactly say it's much easier with AT&T or Verizon when you actually speak the same language. I learned quite a lot in the process so figured I'd write it down in case I needed to do it again or in case it's of use to others.
- A China Mobile prepaid SIM (SIM kar) can be bought from a supermarket or China Mobile affiliate. You pick your number upfront and the price is largely dependent on the composition of digits. 4s are not favored since it is an unlucky number, since the words for four and death differ only in tone. Prices seem to range from 20 RMB to 1000 RMB for essentially the same thing, stores off the tourist track seem to be much more reasonable.
- Some SIMs need to be activated. It's an easy call but the instructions are all in Chinese on the accompanying documentation so it's not obvious how to do it. Call 13800138000 and then press 2 to cut over to the pseudo-English prompts.
- Credits can be refilled easily by in many stores by buying a refill card. I am told you can get better deals on TaoBao but it's all in Chinese so buying a voucher in a store was easier for me.
- Data plans are incredibly reasonable ($3/mo for 200 MB) and can be set up with just a text message. The M-Zone SIM cards (donggandidai) seem to be better than the EasyOwn ones for GPRS/data usage so look for the orange card with a youth on it rather than the bald guy. And definitely call 10086 to set up a reduced rate plan; I found out the hard way that once you pick your plan you're stuck with it for six months.
- The iPhone can be coerced into working here with some helpful free pointers from the internet. Sadly, the two apps I actually use while mobile (Tweetie and Facebook) don't work for obvious reasons. But the Maps app is proving very useful. I'm not sure if 3G is possible with my setup but the EDGE connection seems to be working out fine.
- Calling up AT&T prior to our departure and getting carrier unlock codes was a good idea.
- SMS text messaging is really popular and seems to be used across the spectrum from casual to business interactions.
We had a great day of exploring today around Beihai Park and the Back Lakes in Beijing. We walked the city all day, working our way from Wangfujing past Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (past all the tour guides and art students), turning toward and then on through Beihai Park (much more serene) and onward through the Back Lakes. We covered big roads, small hutongs and peaceful parks and although cold outside it's felt great to get some exercise.
We sat down twice. Once for lunch (pork and egg on rice, chicken in spice sweet sauce, both good) and once again to enjoy the sport I can only describe as 'ice chair skating'. Two persons to 'cart', two sharp metal poles each, and a good upper body workout is guaranteed. Great fun!
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Our apartment building runs a daily shuttle to the Carrefour Supermarket in Beijing which is convenient. We made the trip to get some groceries, a SIM card, and some other items for around the apartment. The sights, sounds, colors, smells and unfamiliar foods are quite overwhelming. Supermarket shopping hasn't been that interesting in years!
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It's been an interesting week of new cuisine. I think I've tried everything that's come my way and the stomach still seems to be holding up OK. Some of the notables include roast duck (very rich and tasty), deep fried chicken cartilage (interesting texture), steamed dumplings (tasty but pushed chopstick skills to the limit), pork rib bites with gristle in sweet sauce, sticky buns for breakfast, noodles and bok choy in the morning.
On the western front, I gave my stomach a rest with McDonalds (didn't think I'd ever say that) and a celebration at a Brazilian/Latin grill. The western-style restaurant at work has some familiar components but I don't know the shorter English name for the dish I would describe as 'cajun breaded pork cut served in a sizzling fajita dish with rice topped with egg'. I have found the Starbucks machine in the office, the tea in the cooler and am thoroughly enjoying the daily fruit service.
I am told I'll need to recalibrate my spicy scale on Monday when we go out for Sìchuān-style food.